Tragedy seems to be a normal part of life for my people. I’ve known so many sad stories during my life time that with every passing event, I feel numb to the pain that a normal person should realize. It doesn’t mean I am immune to the pain. Instead, I feel a deep sense of sadness when I experience the passing of loved ones in my life as it reminds me of so many others that have gone before.
This past month when most of us should be enjoying summer joy several people passed on unexpectedly.
My cousin Jeff Kataquapit passed on recently at the age of 57. He had suffered from a chronic pulmonary disease for some time and we had all worried about risks to his health during the Covid19 pandemic. This past month he contracted an infection that worsened his condition and he succumbed to the complications that occurred.
It was a terrible reminder to everyone in my family of the dangers of Covid, viruses and infections that are still very threatening to the weak and vulnerable. My partner Mike was also a good long time friend to Jeff and they had talked about these concerns as they shared a similar health problem affecting their lungs. It was a great shock for us to hear the news of Jeff’s passing as we had all done our best to protect against chance infections, flus, colds and the possibility of Covid.
Jeff fluently spoke the Cree language which he preferred to use over English. He was one of my older cousins who held that special position of having been born early enough to know many prominent Elders, our grandparents and so many of the wise people in our community. I always admired his grasp of our traditional language and he often shared many old stories, legends and historical facts that our Elders had passed on to him.
I recall Jeff as someone we younger cousins looked up to as he seemed to have a handle of the new culture of heavy metal music and all the leather, colours, spiked hair and jeans that the music came with. It was always a thrill for young Kataquapit cousins like myself to visit Jeff and his family of active and adventurous boys. My aunt Theresa and uncle Gabriel always welcomed everyone to their home to share a meal and or simply take time to socialize. I was closest to his younger brother Lindy, who is my best friend, as we are the same age. There was always a good laugh and lots of fun whenever we ventured close to their home with the rest of their brothers Norman, Eric, Ron, Steve, Brian and Robert. I can recall summer afternoons tossing a basketball in a backyard court made of sawdust and packed mud while uncle Gabriel played his old time fiddle at one end of the house and Iron Maiden blared from a ghetto blaster near by. My memories of Jeff surround the Cree language, traditions and culture in the life we enjoyed together in the neighbourhood close to uncle Gabriel’s home.
My cousin Jeff’s passing happened also at the same time as his nephew Josh Wesley suddenly and tragically lost his partner Kimberly Shisheesh and their new born baby Frances. I felt a deep sadness of this news as Josh was also part of those memories of being with the Kataquapit boys when I was growing up. There are so many connections to both Josh and Kimberly in my home community of Attawapiskat and the shock wave of sadness travelled through First Nations throughout Northern Ontario. Too many of our young people are passing away and leaving us all to mourn and grieve.
Also in the midst of all of this sad news Attawapiskat also lost Davis Koostachin at the age of 39. He was the son of David Okimaw and Christine Koostachin. Davis was younger than me and I saw him often through another set of cousins on my mom’s side of the Paulmartin family.
The loss of all these people in the same time frame came as a great sadness for me. Although I have drifted away from my home community, I still feel connected through countless memories of good and hard times. In the true spirit of who we are as Cree and our need to heal and go forward, my brother Joe and a group of volunteers is featuring the Kattawapiskak Keekehwin Gathering this August. Out of the sadness we have just experienced, our families and friends will share in tradition, culture and music as a way to heal and move forward. We are survivors and we will continue to pull each other up from deep wells of sadness to the bright sunny rays of hope. We understand that time is the great healer and this is our ‘Ininew Peematisiwin’ (Cree way of life).